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Theologizing Egypt

Much of the world is watching the civil and less-than-civil unrest in Egypt. All too often Seventh-day Adventists have treated current events like these as new revelation. As means to understanding the End. A flickering lesser than the lesser light to a great light, the news on TV is always, already proving all our revelations true.

Just as some have sorted and picked various proof texts from the Bible and Ellen White’s writings, it is all too common to hear folks grab this or that bit of news and use it to buttress an eschatological scenario. Rumors of war? It’s the end of time. Peace? It’s the time of the end. No matter the story of the day, we’re always right. On. The. Edge.

If I recall my Adventist history, didn’t some of our theologians link the king of the south in Daniel 11 to Egypt? And didn’t Ellen White essentially tell them to focus on more important matters?

Beyond the obvious problems with humans pinning sacred events to human time, perhaps this practice also leads to a problematic world ethic. Wars are not just plot points in a theologian’s Heilsgeschichte. They involve real human lives and depend very much on the political choices, and the under-girding soteriological ends, of our increasingly connect global community. This old Review article appealing for a 13th Sabbath offering provides a brief history of Adventism in Egypt.

In 1877 a group of Italian Adventists living in Naples sent the French paper Signes des Temps (Signs of the Times) to some Italian friends in Alexandria. This became the first Adventist contact in the Middle East. A year later Romualdo Bartola, a self-supporting missionary and traveling businessman, visited Alexandria. His efforts resulted in seven baptisms, and a small Adventist group started meeting. The church grew slowly. At the beginning of 1912 there were only 18 known Adventists in Egypt. But later that year George Keough, an Irish missionary, learned that a group of 24 Sabbathkeepers were worshipping in southern Egypt. He visited them and organized the first Adventist Church made up of Egyptians. Other congregations at the time were made up mostly of Europeans living in Egypt. Today some 800 Adventists live in Egypt. Although Adventists are free to practice their faith in Egypt, local laws make it hard for the church to grow.

I have no idea what the political uprising in Egypt means. But I appreciated that in Sabbath School someone noted that another member present had a relative in Cairo. Rather than just keeping things global, it helped me to connect the faraway with the local. That ability for faith to link the far to the near might help Adventism to rebalance our focus on world politics from the then to the now. Not only would it have theological implications, this shift would call us to a wider, even a higher standard, of Adventist ethics.

According to, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the twelfth largest religious body in the world. Furthermore, we are the sixth largest highly international religious body, meaning that more than 30% of our members live outside of the core country, or the area with the largest group of members. The worldwide Adventist presence appears to be increasingly significant around the world, particularly in current economic and political hot spots. Granted that the Adventist presence in Egypt is extremely small relative to Sunni Islam, which ranks as number two in both of the above categories. But because we are spread around the world in incredibly disuse ways, Adventists are increasingly knit into the fabric of world events.

Of course we should care about the world beyond our parochial connections. But those commitments can help us link our theology to our ethics. After all, this super global reach involves super global power. And as we fans of the superhero genre know: with great power comes great responsibility. As we reform and revive, we must also rethink. The more we embrace a global awareness, the more we will have to reflect carefully on what our distinctive witness should be.

As we come to terms with our places in our world, perhaps it is time to ask: how can we expand our theologizing about current events to inspire ethical reflections rooted in the here, there, the future, as well as the now?

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